By Choice Ekpekurede
“Almost 200 suspected members of the Boko Haram were killed today by residents of Rann, the headquarters of Kala-Balge local government area in north eastern part of Borno State, officials and locals from the area said..” - Daily Trust, May 13, 2014
First of all, congratulations to the people of Rann in Kala-Balge LGA, Borno State! The latest report from Borno State has shown what difference ordinary civilians can make in the armed struggle to crush Boko Haram and other forces of insecurity in Nigeria.
I can easily understand the dangers associated with the call by ENDS for the government to give permission for the various civilian Joint Task Forces (JTFs) and vigilante groups in the Northeast to be armed with guns and other lethal weapons to enable them engage Boko Haram effectively. How do we eventually control these weapons and prevent use of these weapons for criminal activities? How do we ensure that these groups do not engage in gross human rights abuses and oppressive activities that have been characteristic of such groups as the defunct Bakassi Boys, MEND, Egbesu, OPC, and Ombatse. Our everyday experience and multiple studies, such as the research carried out by Arthur L. Kellermann et al, indicate, beyond reasonable doubt, that gun violence increases in a community with increase in the number of guns available to the civilian population. These are legitimate concerns and they are indeed very serious ones.
As serious as those concerns are, we cannot brush aside calls for civilian groups to defend their communities and their people with guns and other lethal weapons. What should ordinary Nigerians and our various communities do in light of the unacceptable level of insecurity in the country and the inability of our security forces to get it under control – to protect life and property? Should the people just fold their arms and wait to be slaughtered by criminals and terrorists?
Providing phone numbers and communication gadgets to the people in order for them to contact our security forces in case of an imminent or ongoing attack has undeniable merits in theory, but it has been shown to be almost useless in practical terms in Nigeria. Residents of Chibok and Amnesty International continue to insist that the military was warned of the recent Chibok attack, that has given rise to the #BringBackOurGirls global campaign, at least four hours before it happened. Testimonies from the Shehu of Bama, Alh. Kyari Ibrahim Ibn Elkanemi, and other residents of Bama indicated that it took eight hours for the military to respond to a cry for help from the people of Bama in Borno State. Eight long hours! And when the military arrived, it was already too late. Of this incident, Al Jazeera reported, “At least 115 people have been killed in Nigeria’s northeast, more than 1,500 buildings razed and some 400 vehicles destroyed.”
Narrating the ordeal to Premium Times, the Shehu lamented, “For now the morale of the people is down on the trust they have for the president, the governors, the local government chairmen, and even us, the traditional rulers, because a system that was designed to protect them failed them. I repeat, the confidence our people are having on the President down to the local council officers is nil!” He later added, “The government has failed; it is not protecting anything, and I have no reservation in saying this. It is constitutional responsibility of government to protect lives, but here lives are not protected at all. And the irony of the whole thing is that what is happening and being condoned by the government of Nigeria can bring down the entire country.” Other similar, heartbreaking examples abound.
The fact today is that Nigeria has become a state whose security lies primarily in the hands of ethnic militiamen and civilian vigilante groups. While Nigeria’s military must be commended for whatever successes it has recorded against Boko Haram and other marauding militant groups, it remains a reality that we cannot depend on the military alone. The military is either grossly incapable or unwilling to do what is necessary to protect ordinary citizens. Either way, our people and communities remain vulnerable. With what happened at Gamboru-Ngala a few days ago, just to give a very recent example, it seems foolish for us not to take steps to defend ourselves. We cannot afford to fold our arms and wait for the Nigerian military or the Nigerian Police Force. To do so, it appears, amounts to doing a dance macabre.
The risk posed by encouraging the formation and the arming of civilian vigilante groups can be dealt with with appropriate intervention and engagement by the government and the nation’s security forces.
To this end, the Federal Government should step up and step in to train and equip and give permission for duly registered nongovernmental organizations, following some due process, to equip our civilian JTFs and vigilante groups in order for our communities to engage Boko Haram and other security threats, including armed robbers, marauding Fulani herdsmen, kidnappers, and ritual killers. It is in the interest of the government and of orderliness in the country for the government to do this. This will give the government good control of the arming process and of the mode of operation of the various civil defense groups already in existence in the country. The government should also encourage the formation of such groups across the country in communities where they do not already exist.
Failure or refusal of the government to do this will not prevent the people from defending themselves. Failure or refusal of the government to do this will only heighten the chances that these JTFs and vigilante groups will spin out of control and the weapons they use deployed for criminal activities. Whatever the government decides to do, let us be rest assured that Nigeria is now a country whose security depends on the effectiveness of civil defense groups. Various armed militias already exist in the country, from the north to south, and they will be around for a long time. Until our military and security forces are willing and able to handle our security challenges, I believe this is the surest way of self-defense for our communities and for ordinary citizens.
Come to think of it, the Boko Haram insurgents, the marauding Fulani herdsmen, the armed robbers troubling our communities, kidnappers, ritual killers, and other sources of insecurity in our communities are not trained military men for the most part. We have had report of instances where trained soldiers or policemen were noted to be among these criminals, but generally, the bad guys are mere civilians who took up arms to commit crime and havoc. So why cannot ordinary citizens with basic, relevant training tackle these criminals to defend their people and their communities?